This was meant to be Albania’s big day. Their debut at a major international football tournament was greeted with great enthusiasm by their fans, who travelled in numbers to Lens’ Stade Bollaert-Delelis, but while their fervour rarely died, their side’s hopes of progress are already dwindling after a 1-0 loss to Switzerland.
It was two of their most experienced campaigners who let them down when it mattered, with captain Lorik Cana particularly culpable for his part in the debutants’ downfall. The experienced defender has endured a difficult year with Nantes, and his transition to international football proved complicated.
Having already been booked for a scything challenge in midfield, the veteran centre-back, once on the books of Paris Saint-Germain, clumsily stumbled under pressure from Haris Stefanovic at the edge of his own box and was forced to handle the ball to avert potential disaster. A second yellow card was the logical outcome.
His was the third quickest red card for two yellows in European Championship finals history – hardly the bow he would have dreamed of last night.
Perhaps Cana might have been better allowing the striker to go through on goal, given that Albania No.1 Etrit Berisha seemed to have his number all afternoon. While Switzerland fashioned the better chances throughout the game, the Lazio goalkeeper made several superb blocks to keep his side within touching distance of their opponents.
It was the least he could do, though. Berisha had played his part in his country’s defeat, undermining their challenge as early as the fifth minute when he flapped hopelessly at a corner. The error allowed Fabian Schar to simply direct a header into the vacant net.
But Albania had rallied well and put together spells of play that had their most tournament-hardened opponents on the back foot. While their play was tidy enough, Yann Sommer was only once significantly tested, as Armando Sadiku went clear but failed to negotiate the final Swiss hurdle.
It was enough to suggest that they were capable of getting back into the match yet Cana’s red card stalled their momentum and allowed Switzerland to regain the initiative just as they had started to seem vulnerable.
The Swiss dominated the second period in terms of possession and chances, but the redemption of Berisha and the wastefulness of Seferovic meant that they were unable to truly settle.
Opportunities for Albania, though, were scant. The control they had enjoyed in the first half was lost and when talisman Taulant Xhaka was replaced after an hour his frustration was clear as he threw a waterbottle towards the dugout in disgust.
But with five minutes left substitute Shkelzen Gashi might have rewarded the unwavering faith of his side’s fans. Sommer, for just the second time in the match, produced a terrific – and this time telling – stop.
While Switzerland are now on the cusp of qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time in a European Championship, Albania are already pushed to qualify. France are next for them, and while a victory over Romania in the final matchday may be enough to qualify as one of the best third-placed teams, their prospects are already slimmer.